Secret religious history reduced to a memory

Like its neighboring islands in Nagasaki Prefecture, Hiradoshima island has a number of exotic cultural elements due to foreign influences. While all the cultural imports have enriched the lives of local residents, faith in one of them--Christianity--resulted in suffering.

The first contact between residents of Hirado and Western missionaries is thought to have occurred in 1550, when Jesuit Francis Xavier landed there. Xavier, having obtained permission from feudal lords to propagate Christianity in the area, succeeded in converting many people.

Later, when national leaders banned Christianity, many residents abandoned their faith. However, some continued to worship clandestinely, over time developing a form of Christianity that included elements of Buddhism, Shintoism and local customs. In fact, what emerged in the end was a unique religion totally different from Catholicism.

In a community called Neshiko, a 30-minute drive from downtown Hirado, the rituals of Kakure Kirishitan (literally "clandestine Christians") continue to be quietly observed by a small group of people. However, two other nearby communities abandoned the customs long ago.

Neshiko is a quiet countryside community that seems to offer nothing of particular interest for tourists. In reality, though, its Hirado Christian Museum attracts visitors from around the globe. The museum houses items used by Kakure Kirishitan, including ritual objects such as rosaries and drawings of followers engaged in worship. It also features a mock Kakure Kirishitan altar donated by a local resident.

During their long history, Kakure Kirishitan generally led a kind of double religious life. Outwardly required to conform to Buddhism or Shintoism, they installed Buddhist or Shinto altars in their living rooms. But these were just a cover for their true religious devotion. They also prayed at Christian altars, which they kept hidden in secret rooms out of fear that they would be killed if authorities found out.

Even after freedom of religion was granted in 1873, many of them did not change their unique ways of worship.

"I assume they had strict rules to ensure that their underground religious activities were kept secret during the prohibition of Christianity," said Tomoyuki Urabe, a local historian whose mother hails from Neshiko. "They were afraid of punishment for violating the prohibition. But for them, giving up their religion meant giving up their community."

Kakure Kirishitan also conducted dual funerals. For official purposes, they carried out Buddhist ceremonies, sending off the spirit of the deceased to begin life in the next world. But to bid farewell to the dead in accordance with their Christian beliefs required bringing the soul back in order to send it to heaven. Therefore, they performed a special ritual, sometimes on the same day as the Buddhist service, called modoshikata (literally, "the way of getting back").

Urabe said he saw modoshikata being performed at his uncle's funeral about a decade ago. However, he said he could learn little about such religious customs, which were only performed by males, because they were not openly talked about.

"Several men gathered behind a temple where my uncle's funeral was held. Now, I know that they were performing modoshikata for my uncle's soul," he said.

Next to Hirado Christian Museum is a thick forest that was sacred to believers. "Descendants of Kakure Kirishitan must take off their shoes when they enter these woods," Urabe said.

Urabe then took me to a nearby cemetery to show me tombstones peculiar to Kakure Kirishitan. Each consisted of a pile of flat rocks on which several round stones a little larger than eggs had been placed.

"They represent the souls of the dead, don't they?" I immediately asked.

"I think so," Urabe said, but added that there is no academic basis for his opinion. However, he did say that a Kakure Kirishitan in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, had told him that his family gravestones always included three round stones.

"I've got it," I shrieked. Both of us had the same thought: The stones were a symbol of the Christian Trinity--what else could this be? However, it is hard to be sure now that most Kakure Kirishitan have stopped observing such rituals.

In Hirado today, tourists come to visit the city's beautiful Catholic churches. The most popular is St. Francis Xavier Memorial Church, which is surrounded by Buddhist temples. The view, which mingles East with West, is the only reminder of the city's unusual past.

--Asami Nagai